Haibun: Aims and Problems

First published in Contemporary Haibun Online 15:2, July 2019. Originally written in 2001, and revised in 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2019.

In the published and unpublished haibun I’ve read as a reader and as an editor, it seems that haibun work best if at least two, preferably all three, of the following three aims are met (the first two of which may be obvious, the third less so):

These aims may be self-evident, but too often a haibun stumbles in one of these areas or another. The haiku come first in priority because haibun is a haiku-based genre of writing. The leaps or links between the prose and poems are not the least important, but they are listed third because it follows that they can come about only as a result of how the poems and prose are handled. Ideally, a good haibun meets all three of these aims, but perhaps a haibun can still succeed by meeting just two of these criteria, so long as the weakest attempt at meeting these three aims is not too weak. A certain minimum standard for the poems and prose must be reached for the work to even begin to succeed as a haibun, however. As the English-language haiku community matures into a greater understanding of haibun writing and its potentials, I believe it must confront itself with consistently meeting at least two of these aims in the composition of haibun, and preferably all three. Haibun writers have much to learn, it seems, from short story and fiction writers in honing their prose, and must learn from the best haibun themselves how to create effective leaps between the poems and the prose.

        We’ve all read haibun where the poems were good, but the prose was unfocused, unpolished, or lacked clarity or immediacy—perhaps by experienced haiku poets who presume that they can write effective prose easily. We’ve all read haibun where the prose was excellent, but the poems were ho-hum—perhaps by experienced fiction writers who are new to haiku and underestimate their challenges. And we’ve probably most frequently read haibun where the leaps and links between prose and poem were marred by redundancy, repetition, or obscurity. I believe these problems come from three sources, and that they parallel the three aims of a successful haibun. Two of these problems are elementary, and the third can best be addressed if the first two problems are overcome.

        The two elementary problems beginning haibun writers face are being new to writing haiku and inexperienced at writing prose in the haibun style. It is not my purpose here to define the prevailing style of haibun prose; however, haibun prose differs from expository writing or fiction (even while haibun writers could learn good writing from these genres), and if writers are new to the writing of haibun prose, then they may do well to read a great deal of it (and to read a lot of flash fiction) and toss out many of their own initial attempts before seeking publication. Likewise, if writers are new to haiku, without regard to their skills as writers of other forms of poetry or prose, they would do well to hone their craft with individual haiku before seeking publication for their haibun. Too many writers who are excellent at prose assume that it’s easy to add the haiku, which is far from true. But the reverse is also true—too many haiku poets assume that the prose will be easy to write well than it actually is.

        If a poet has honed his or her craft with haiku, and has developed a sensitivity to the nature of haibun prose, and has met the challenges of the two elementary problems of haibun, then he or she will be able to reach the first two aims for successful haibun—good poems and good prose. However, for an ideal haibun, this is still not enough. The third aim is that the haibun demonstrate effective leaps or links between the poems or prose (indeed, this unstated connection between parts is central to all Japanese literary arts—vital to renku, haiga, tan-renga, and of course within each haiku itself). While two of the problems with failed haibun are elementary—being new to writing haiku or new to writing haibun prose—the third problem is more advanced: learning to delicately balance the poems amid the prose in a haibun, creating the most effective relationships between them. It is here, more than anywhere else, where the haibun can become extraordinary. Having strong poems and strong prose are givens, but it is in the interplay of these elements and their overall gestalt where haibun becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

        The solution, as haiku poets should know, is to take the juxtapositional techniques of internal comparison or contrast as used in individual haiku and extend them to the interaction of the haiku with the haibun prose. Within an individual haiku, the juxtaposition functions in terms of both grammar and image—with the second part of the poem being not just grammatically independent from the first part but a shift to a new image. Too often haiku poets think they have created an effective juxtaposition when they haven’t—offering just a new image but not a grammatical shift, or a grammatical shift but just a restatement of the same image. So it helps to understand how juxtaposition works within individual haiku before one can expand these techniques to the larger scope of how each poem relates to the prose.

        A further misunderstanding some haiku poets have regarding juxtaposition in their haiku is what that juxtaposition is meant to accomplish. It is not for shock value, or to create unearned sentimental emotions. Nor is it arbitrary or contrived. Rather, an effective juxtaposition of images in a haiku creates a potentially resolvable tension. This tension is resolvable if the juxtaposed images are alike in some significant (perhaps intuitive) way—not just in shape, age, colour, or whatever, but also in mood, so as to produce an emotional response or effect. Alikeness is not the only technique available when juxtaposing the poem’s two parts, but if any alikeness is unexplained, and if the relationship between the two parts is neither too obvious nor too obscure, then the juxtaposition can create what Harold G. Henderson called internal comparison, where one image-experience is felt to be akin (though not obviously) to another image-experience, producing a feeling of rightness and wholeness between the two. The overall result of this gestalt is that both parts of a juxtaposition reach greater clarity, creating an emotional response in the reader that somewhat matches the writer’s original emotional response to his or her image-experience. What’s more, both parts of the juxtaposition become whole with the universe in a sometimes mystical or transcendent sense. It is here, in this mystery, where the revelation of haiku occurs, where the writer’s “aha” moment of experience becomes the reader’s “aha” moment also. This can be done if the writer writes, not about his or her feelings, but about what caused those feelings. Then, with a successful haiku, the reader can experience the same feelings. The internal comparison in haiku is not strictly metaphorical—one thing is not meant to stand for or represent another, or at least not too obviously. Rather, two independent entities (image-experiences) are presented with such crafting to suggest a meaningful similarity or wholeness, or sometimes with contrast, yet still with rightness. The effective haiku must nearly always have these two parts, effectively juxtaposed with a grammatical caesura between them, or the overall gestalt will not be able to take place.

        Just as an individual haiku creates a gestalt, so too will the best haibun. By combining effective poems with strong haibun prose in just the right ways, the writer can create intuitive leaps that engage the reader. Thus the poem should avoid redundancy with the prose, and should take the flow of the text in some new emotional or experiential direction. If the poem repeats what’s in the prose just before it, then the poem is deflated. If, however, the poem leaps too far away, then the pairing of the poem and prose loses balance and may just confuse readers. In short, the relationship of the poem to the prose (usually the prose appears first) should be one where, as in an individual haiku, something unstated can be conveyed—or what Donald Hall called the “unsayable said.” It is a matter of learning what to leave out, for sometimes the most important element needs to be removed from the haiku, the haibun, and the links between its elements, so that that most important element can be implied. Perhaps a good test of every haiku, and certainly of every haibun, is to ask: What is implied and left unstated by the poems, the prose, and especially the leap between the two?

        At the beginning I suggested that haibun can succeed by meeting at least two of three primary aims: effective poems, strong prose, and effective leaps or links between the poems and prose. The ideal haibun, of course, meets all three aims, but perhaps it is still possible for haibun to succeed if just two (but no less than two) of these aims are met. If the leaps and links between poems and prose are effective, then at least either the poems or prose can be strong for the whole haibun to be reasonably successful. If the poems and prose are good on their own, but the leaps and links are not effective between them, the haibun might still be interesting, but I believe this may be the one combination of meeting just two aims for a successful haibun that is least likely to succeed. While it should be a given that a haibun contain strong prose and poems, perhaps a haibun cannot be truly effective unless it masters the leaps and links between its elements. The effectiveness of the leaps and links, and the internal comparisons created by judicious juxtapositions of poems and prose, are the kingpin of haibun. Without them, the haibun really is not a haibun, but merely prose and haiku.